Meeting a football pioneer

Because of a friendship that was started over 40 years ago in a club in Oakland, Calif., I was fortunate to meet and talk to one of Pro Football’s pioneers, if only for a few minutes.

Being ordered to spend at least five days on a U.S. Naval Base at Treasure Island, Calif., for briefing and map corrections prior to being discharged I found time to spend my nights exploring the night life in San Francisco and Oakland. It was there I met a guy who was a recent graduate from Michigan State who just landed a job with the Oakland Raiders. The four nights of my stay in the Bay area ended up in a 40-plus year friendship with my new friend from Michigan State. With a degree in business my friend started at the bottom and eventually ended up as an assistant to the Raiders owner Al Davis.

The years past with yearly trips either to Oakland, San Diego, Seattle or any game I could make just to see my friend, and of course my Raiders. With my friend’s job, he always let me stay in the same hotel as the team and had the choice of a good seat or a field pass that would allow me on the field to watch the game from the sideline or stand by the bench during the games.

Being a die hard Raiders fan and living in Buffalo Bills territory always made for many arguments and good times when the other team had lost. Many times I was smiling inside when I would hear how Ralph Wilson and Al Davis hated each other and how Ralph Wilson gave Al Davis $400,000 or he would have lost the Raiders. Being friends with someone close to Al Davis I knew the stories weren’t true. The two owners actually were best of friends. One story I enjoyed hearing was for years when the Raiders came to Rich Stadium. Ralph Wilson would purchase two new recliners – one for his wife and the other was for Al’s wife. The same happened when the Bills were playing in Oakland. When the games ended the recliners were always given to local charities.

As for the story of Mr. Wilson loaning Al Davis money to keep the Raiders alive, all one really had to do is ask a real Bills or Raiders fan. They would know that yes, Mr. Wilson did lend money to keep the Raiders alive, but it wasn’t to Al Davis; it was to Raiders owner F. Wayne Valley. The historical loan was in 1960, Al Davis joined the Raiders in 1963.

After giving you a little Bills/Raider history I can now tell you of my remembrance of my meeting with a real football pioneer . The Raiders were playing the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Having a Raiders field pass that let me roam the sidelines I started the game standing next to the Raiders bench. The game was tied and the Bills were favored by seven. With 10 minutes left on the clock and rain starting to come down I headed for the tunnel. As I entered the tunnel the rain immediately stopped. It wasn’t long before I realized Ralph Wilson was standing next to me.

With a Raiders team jacket on and a Raiders field pass Mr. Wilson asked what my job with the team was, and if I lived in the Bay area. I replied that I was a guest of the Raiders and that I actually lived in Fredonia. After hearing that he said, “Fredonia! What a beautiful place!”

Then he talked about great times he had while the team practiced there. He talked of the walks he took with coach Marv Levy around the campus and the walks through the town. He asked about the White Inn and told me about having friends stay there when they came in to watch the team practice. He also talked about going to Lily Dale with friends just to see what all the talk was about.

As we were talking, the fans noticed Mr. Wilson and the cameras started flashing from the fans on both sides of the tunnel. As I turned Marv Levy joined us along with Thurman Thomas and within minutes we were surrounded with Buffalo Bills from the past. It was the game when the Buffalo Bills were enshrining Bruce Smith on their Wall of Fame.

As the teams were coming in for half time I shook Mr. Wilson’s hand and said, “It’s nice to meet you.” That few minutes with a football pioneer will always be part of my football memories. Life has many roads and sometimes going down the right one can make a difference. Had I stayed on base as I was ordered to I may never had met this young graduate from Michigan and would have never got a chance to spend a few moments with Mr. Wilson.